Over a hundred years has passed since a large congregation of Simister people gathered to celebrate the dedication of their new church: St George’s. Prior to the building of St George’s the local people held services in the Simister Lane School, now The Lady Wilton Hall. It was often overcrowded, and as a result some parishioners preferred to attend St Margaret’s or other nearby churches.
The people of Simister wanted and needed a church of their own. All that was originally expected was a Mission Hall, but the dedication of local people to the raising of funds allowed for the church that we have today. The church was only too be built if it was debt free and without mortgage. The land had been promised by the Earl of Wilton in 1909, and the east end was paid for by a large donation from the Carver family (hence the memorial stone), but all other monies had to be raised piecemeal.
Fundraising began in earnest and in a fairly short amount of time there was enough money to start setting dates and clearing the ground. The digging of the first sod in April 1914 was a very special occasion, and the laying of the memorial stone and of course the Dedication were also big events for the local people, who were mainly employed by the calico and dying industry at Rhodes, or working the land around the village. Only twenty years earlier the last of the silk weavers had packed away their looms to weave cotton in the mills. These were not rich people and they were at war. The men who had cleared the land and raised the fencing the year before were now in the trenches or very shortly heading for them, but still the people of Simister found energy and money to furnish the church.
Every item needed a donor – the altar, chalice, font, the books and of course the chairs – and the people worked hard to supply the church with what it needed. The parish magazine at the time listed each and every penny given and each and every one of the 140 chairs paid for, and by whom. The children even raised the money for the Baptismal Register that is still in use today. Each and every brick and furnishing was given unselfishly and in the name of God.
Only three months after cutting the first sod, the Great War was underway. Men went willingly to war to fight for King and country; at least fifty men from Simister area fought over the four years, and at least ten lost their lives. Some never lived to see their new church, but their names are recorded at St George’s and at other nearby churches.
Almost every family in the village sent at least one man to war, and as many of the families were related in one way or another, this was a difficult time for everyone in the community on a personal basis as well as nationally. Yet the plans for the new church continued, and by the time the church was dedicated, men had fought, been injured, and returned to the front. Some may have briefly been at home.
These men were the old boys of the Sunday School, members of the Lads Club, and the teachers and ex-pupils of the Simister Lane School. They had grown up together and now had young families of their own, who in turn attended the schools and church groups. There were a few newcomers, and they too willingly donated to the new church and continued to support it, some for decades after.
Georgina Jaggard was the first child baptised here, on November 14th 1915. She was the niece of Jesse, who appears on the memorial. Her baptism was reportedly attended y a “large and interested congregation” and it was stated in the parish magazine that “if anyone was in doubt that a church was needed they should see how greatly the people in the Lane appreciate it”.
War took its toll on the people of Simister. Families were devastated by the loss of loved ones and the men that returned had been both physically and mentally damaged by the experience. Peace brought a new influx of people to Simister, with the de-mobbed looking for a better life away from the cities. New and old residents alike worked together to rebuild their lives, with the church being a central part of the process.
During the interwar period that church continued to be central to the people of Simister, and although marriages and burials were still performed at St Margaret’s, there were plenty of church based groups and activities.
By 1925 the church had a annual procession at Whitsun, the Dedication Festival, the congregational Tea in December, its own Girl Guides and a Girls Friendly Society, Mothers Union and a Sunday School with 100 pupils registered, as well as its weekly Sunday services including Evensong and a regular Communion Service, all well attended.
The break out of the second world war had a great impact on the people of Simister and this church. The Great War had taught the nation an awful lesson on the perils of war; now the sons of the fallen were being sent away to fight. Heaton Park was a training camp, the Earls of Wilton being long gone.
Families were struggling with rationing and the cotton industry was in decline. Farming in the village continued to keep some families employed, but despite the difficulties, the people of Simister carried on as best they could, supporting one another through the church. More women of the village joined the mothers Union at St George’s than ever before, maybe finding solace with like-minded folk.
The post-war period was the most difficult era for the church nationally. There was a difficulty in providing clergy to run services, ordination numbers were low, and the world was changing dramatically. Sadly, the services here were affected by a lack of manpower like many other churches in the area. The services were reduced and baptisms were few and far between. But, Fred Heywood was in charge, and so in true Simister style the 1947 annual procession took place as usual. The sun shone, the Cheetham Hill band played, the children with baskets of flowers and decorated crooks walked the familiar route, and the day ended with a splendid tea and games in the field until the sun went down.
In the 60s and 70s this church once again became central to the people of Simister; the were new young families, and their children attended the somewhat smaller village school.
The building of the new schools and more modern housing meant the renaming of the Simister Lane School to the Lady Wilton Hall, enabling a link to be kept and giving a proper name for the future. The old derelict houses were demolished ad the new motorway was planned.
St George’s was yet again a busy church, and the children attended the groups and activities provided. The hall was used for dance classes and brownies much as before, with the addition of Christmas Fairs and Flower Festivals. The tradition of the Whitson Procession continued and Fred Heywood still led it. In 1968 the parish magazine described the Sunday School parties as “a hectic success” and that the teachers had a long weekend, with the Junior party on the Friday night followed by the Infant party o the Saturday afternoon. The Sunday School was struggling with a continuing problem of a lack of space because there were too many classes for the schoolroom.
Fred Heywood passed away in 1981 aged 91, having been part of Simister and the church his whole life, witnessing the digging of the first sod, going off to war, living through World War II, and experiencing all the changes in the village and the church’s life. He is remembered and commemorated within this church.
Luckily for St George’s a new stalwart was willing to take over, John Harding, later known and loved by everyone as Mr Simister! He took on the role of Church Warden, and for the next 40 years he organised and sorted whatever the church needed and totally dedicated himself to its cause, just as others had before him.
The traditions of this village and church were maintained and the people of Simister continued to support the Annual Procession and other events. Sadly John passed away in 2012, leaving a massive gap in the life of this church and the hearts of the congregation. He too is remembered, this time as you open the gate and walk his walk.
Extracted from St George’s Church Centenary Booklet, compiled by Julie Harding in memory of John Harding, a true gentleman, and Warden of St George’s for 40 years until his passing in 2012.